Revolutionaries in Stilettos: Hit the Wall Documents a Flashpoint in Gay History
By Harry Haun
A look at the new Off-Broadway play Hit the Wall, about the night that birthed the gay-rights movement, staged in the same neighborhood where "Stonewall" still stands.
Ghostly white sculptures of gays fraternize forever in Christopher Park, that triangular brick-laid isle South of the Stonewall Inn and East of Village Cigars in the heart of the West Village. You couldn't ask for a more site-specific spot to hold a press conference for Hit the Wall, a 90-minute encapsulation of the Stonewall riots of 1969.
"I'd say 60 percent of the play takes place right where we're standing," declared Ike Holter, whose concise saga opens March 10 a long block away at the Barrow Street Theatre.
"It's not a play about queer rights — it's a play about civil rights and human rights. It follows ten characters through 24 hours — pre-riot, during riot, and post-riot, and these are the riots still celebrated with Gay Pride Day every last Sunday in June."
This heroic, historic stand that gays made against hammering police harassment in the sweltering early-morning hours of June 28 more than 43 years ago was, socially, a tide-turner of tsunamic proportions. A community was galvanized that night.
Momentous as it was, the incident has never truly received the epic depiction that it deserves, on stage or on screen. A 1995 film called "Stonewall," directed by Nigel Finch and featuring Guillermo Diaz, Frederick Weller, Isaiah Washington and Bruce MacVittie, made a pass at the material. Renowned director and playwright Tina Landau staged a site-specific piece she wrote called Stonewall: Night Variations, in front of the Stonewall Inn in 1994. And film and television documentaries have weighed in on the subject from time to time.
It finally appears, based on the critical hosannas that greeted Hit the Wall when it surfaced last year in Chicago, that this benchmark event has been met with a play of appropriate power and passion. If so, it comes from an unexpected generation.
At the time when a gaggle of drag queens struck their blow for justice, Holter was minus 18 — and his director, Eric Hoff, only five years older — but this generation gap appears to agree with them, enhancing their empathy. Distance does that, it seems.
"Eric and I have been working on this a couple of years — we've done different shows in between, but we've always come back to this one," said Holter. "We did it in Chicago — twice — and we're still putting finishing touches on it. We've been talking to a few Stonewall riot people and getting their perspective and slipping that into the play. It's kind of a surreal experience to walk around here 30 seconds, then suddenly have to sit down and start rewriting in the actual places where the events happened.
"I've always wanted to write about Stonewall. As a young kid coming out I heard a little bit about the riots; they weren't exactly taught in school. One day I caught a snippet of 'Oh, you know, there was this great gay rebellion where the queers fought back.' I went, 'What!' — this was pre-Google, mind you, and I went crazy trying to research it and find out as much as I could about it. In fact, I began to obsess over it."
"I don't think it's important to say this man named Thomas Michael was actually there," he explained. "I think Thomas Michael might prefer it if we just made a piece of theatre that represented what actually happened. There are scenes where you, as a member of the audience, might say, 'Oh, I remember hearing that story about how this person threw a trashcan at a cop,' but we don't draw anybody out by name.
"These are full, fresh, new characters — black, Latino, white. There's a lot of good age-ranges here, too. As a writer, I'm interested in voices from the margins, finally giving them the spotlight. In other plays or films, they'd just be side characters.
"The funny thing about the riot is there are a million different viewpoints of how it went down, so there's a lot of liberty for me in that — but, at the same time, I'm very conscious of things like the weather and police reports and when the police first went into the bar. Then we have the characters fill in the actual, breathing dialogue."
Along the way, were there naysayers trying to tell him that the event was too big for the stage? "Sure. This is a riot. How do you do that? Well, I'm a weird writer anyway so I like merging fight scenes with dance numbers, back and forth. We have a live rock band. There's fast dialogue, there's nudity, there's all this other stuff, but, by the end of the day, I want audiences to care about these people who'd endured enough."
Holter personalizes his battlefield on several fronts. The values at stake here filter through the degrading ordeal of a defiant drag queen (Nathan Lee Graham) and the crisis-of-conscious confronting a strapping lesbian (Rania Salem Manganaro) being lured back into the family fold by her caring, foursquare sister (Jessica Dickey). Both outsiders, forced to the brink of self-denial, realize it's time to make a stand.
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